Living drama at Columbia State Historic Park

Scene of the crime: Main Street, July 26, 1856. 10 a.m.

Arms entwined, the lovers saunter down the dusty road toward the livery stable. Well, swerve and sway is more like it. Not 10 a.m., and already Tom Horn and his “friend,” Miss Jones, are all liquored up. Scandalous!

They stop in the middle of the street and, right there in front of God, the horses and respectable women attending to morning errands, kiss passionately. Some tongue may have been involved, witnesses will later recount. This is just too much for that busybody, old man Smith, the town’s self-appointed guardian of decency. Columbia, after all, no longer is a lawless, raucous Gold Rush outpost in the Sierra foothills with loose morals and women; respectable families live here, decorum must be upheld.

So here waddles the diminutive Smith, armed with nothing more than a crooked cane, to break up the pair’s canoodling. Horn, a strapping 6-foot gent in a handsome suede vest and a six-shooter strapped to his hip, doesn’t see too kindly to the interruption. He shoves Smith aside.

“Mind your own business,” he snarls.

“Please,” Smith replies, meekly, “don’t hurt me.”

Now a stranger interposes, a white-bearded, ruddy-complexioned figure with a jaunty black bandana tied around his neck. An Irishman, not of “our sort,” the gossiping ladies let spill. Been skulking around town all of two weeks apparently looking to mine a claim, doesn’t know a soul here except Mrs. Brown down at the boardinghouse.

“Who do you think you are, you big bully?” the stranger, one Patrick Gaherty, asks, trying to separate the men.

“Git outta here, you coward,” Horn slurs. “Where’s your gun? Only a coward don’t carry a gun.”

Gaherty turns on his boot heels and heads back to the Tibbits House. But Horn won’t let him be, hurling epithets regarding Gaherty’s manhood, as he follows him down Main Street, Miss Jones clutching her diaphanous purple skirts and imploring him to stop. When Gaherty gets to the boardinghouse steps, Horn is right behind him, goading with impunity. Townsfolk, stirred from slumber in the summer heat, gather round.

“Why, you yellow-bellied ...”

Emerging from the boardinghouse with a Colt revolver holstered at his waist, Gaherty has his Irish up, as townsfolk say, and has had quite enough of Horn’s drunken aspersions. They start to tussle, prompting a red-vested merchant, Mr. Charles Jarvis, to come between the men and plead for a peaceful resolution.

In an instant, the Colt revolver clicked. It is Mr. Jarvis, not Horn, sprawled on the porch, bullet in his belly.

“He shot him!” Horn yells.

“I’m innocent,” Gaherty proclaims, as he’s led away by the marshal.

Scene: Clue-gathering, Main Street, 10:20 a.m.

The Doyle family of Cupertino – dad David, mom Louise and teenagers Christopher and Angela – have watched, intently, as the scene has unfolded. Louise, in fact, whipped out her iPhone and videotaped the whole thing, from kiss to pistol shot.

Such modern devices are not prohibited at the “History’s Mysteries” program at Columbia State Historic Park, but the organizers have encouraged good ol’ shoe-leather detective work by giving each of the six groups of “sleuths” pens, paper and clipboards to take notes in trying to solve the “Jarvis-Gaherty Incident,” an actual shooting that occurred in Columbia 158 years ago, albeit in April when the day was presumably cooler and only the tempers were hot.

The whole conceit is that park visitors serve as “investigators” into this callous crime leading to a formal “sheriff’s inquiry” two hours hence, a hearing that will resolve the matter. That’s just as events unfolded in 1856, though it’s highly unlikely folks were nosing around town in fanny packs and flip-flops, knocking back bottled water to stay hydrated.

Each year, park officials select a historic event to re-enact, usually a juicy murder or other dastardly deed from the town records to play out in a funny, slightly cheesy, but historically accurate way. Many state parks stage “living history” events with costumed docents on hand for verisimilitude, but Columbia is arguably the state’s most period-appropriate park. Merchants dress the part even when there’s no re-enactment on tap; horse-drawn carriages glide down the street, and panning for gold is encouraged. Call it the West’s version of Colonial Williamsburg, where everyone’s “in character” – sometimes, annoyingly so.

Docent/actor David Kelley, playing the role of Gaherty, will say later that the living history events are popular especially with kids, who he said find rote recitations of history boring.

“You talk to a 10-year-old kid today,” Kelley said, “and they think a 49er is a football player. They don’t know. We’re trying to get their attention.”

But on this sweltering Saturday in the Gold Country, all the participants buy into the premise. They are totally engaged. On one side of the street, Molly Stewart, 10, and her mom, Jen, from Carmel Valley, are comparing notes and bantering about miner’s claims as a possible motive, while the Doyles huddle in the shade to strategize. The principals in the drama, meanwhile, have repaired to various sites – jail for Gaherty; the saloon for Horn; the boardinghouse for the wounded Jarvis – awaiting visitors with questions. And the gossiping ladies cluck and titter, wring their hands and never fail to note loudly the alleged shooter’s ethnicity was Irish.

Before embarking, the Doyles need to suss out the essential facts from the chaotic crime scene, while Kinko, their cute little poodle-terrier mix, sniffs out a scene over by a wooden post.

Louise: “I’m confused. Who’d he shoot?”

David: “The guy trying to keep the guys from fighting.”

Christopher: “Right.”

David: “So, what’s the crime? He shot the guy. I mean, everybody saw him shoot the guy.”

Louise: “But did he really?”

David: “Good point. That’s a question we need to ask (Gaherty). Did your gun discharge?”

Christopher: “But the sheriff already said a bullet was missing out of (Gaherty’s) gun.”

Louise, retrieving her phone, replays a snippet of the initial altercation, then discreetly puts the phone away.

David: “The guy who got shot: Let’s find out where the hole is. In his side? Back? Leg?”

But Kinko points the way to the jail, so the Doyles follow, intent on grilling Gaherty.

Scene: Jail cell, Columbia Street, 10:35 a.m.

Hat tugged low over his brow, as if he’s got something to hide, Gaherty already has answered questions from other investigators. But he tips his hat to Louise, readjusts his round spectacles. He is partially in the shadow of the jail’s crumbling walls, but his voice carries.

“Yeah, I shot him,” Gaherty says to a gathered throng, including the Doyles and Stewarts. “Self-defense. Tom Horn pulled a gun, too, and I just gave it to him. My gun jammed. It should’ve gone off right away. I was just trying to help the old man, but they put me away. I’m Irish, you know.”

“So you’re saying the guy (Horn) provoked you?” David asks.

“Yeah. He kept saying, ‘Where’s your gun?’ What would you do?”

David, nodding, presses on: “So, you went to the house, right?”

“That’s where I was stayin’. Problem was, that other guy (Jarvis) got between us, and he got him.”

Louise: “Did you know Horn?”

“No. But he’s the town bully, from what I heard. But I’m the one in jail. If you’re Irish like me, you’re basically bad news here. Lotta people hate the Irish. They just do. Matter of fact, during the Mexican war, a lot of Irish left the Americans and joined the Mexicans.”

Kinko, apparently, has heard enough and escapes the leash to sprint across the road to greet a big Lab. Angela retrieves him as the Doyles retreat and compare notes.

Christopher: “OK, let’s go see if the other guy (Horn) admits to drawing his gun. My guess is, he won’t.”

Louise, still brandishing the phone: “Do you want to watch him shoot him again?”

Christopher: “That seems like cheating, Mom.”

Louise: “Here it is. ... No, he had his hand at the (holster).”

David: “That’s cheating, Louise.”

Louise: “I have to replay it. My memory’s not good.”

Christopher: “Regardless of whether (Horn) pulled the gun, there’s some legitimacy in self-defense (for Gaherty). The other guy was badgering him.”

Scene: Bowling-Saloon, Main and State streets, 10:45 a.m.

That rapscallion Tom Horn is holding a bad hand – a jack of hearts, four of clubs, seven of spades and five of diamonds – but his companion, Miss Jones, is playing her cards close to her beaded chest. They both sip from shot glasses of whiskey while entertaining questions. Before the Doyles enter, David and Christopher go over questions, Christopher advising, “Dad, never ask a question you don’t already know the answer to.”

“Hello, folks,” the avuncular Horn greets them. “Unfortunate incident back there ... .”

David doesn’t mince words: “Did you pull your gun?”

“When I saw he was firing, yes, but I didn’t get it out of the holster before the gun fired,” Horn says.

David: “Why did you confront this man (Smith) by the stables?”

Horn looks affronted, folds his cards: “Why, he insulted my girl.”

David: “What did he say?”

Miss Jones: “It’s not worth repeating.”

The Stewart girls ask Horn something about a mining claim, an apparent lead the Doyles have not pursued. The Doyles exchange a perplexed look as Horn answers that query by saying he never knew Gaherty or shared a claim with him.

Outside, the Doyles convene.

Louise: “There’s something we’re missing.”

David: “Do you want to talk to Jarvis first or these ladies across the street?”

But first, they run into Mr. Smith, propped on his crooked cane. He is evasive, though David probes about his previous relationship with Horn and why he, Smith, does not carry a gun.

“If you carry a gun, you’re just asking for trouble,” Smith said. “Just my opinion. This, sir, is a gold town. Somebody always has a pouch of gold in their possession, and a lot of people feel the necessity to be armed. I am a little old man. Most people leave me alone.”

Scene: Tibbits Boardinghouse, Main and Fulton streets, 11:17 a.m.

Charles Jarvis, would-be Samaritan, lies moaning and screaming, playing victimhood to the hilt. Of course, when you’ve been plugged with lead by mistake, people cut you some slack.

“I got shot in my gall bladder – I hoping I’ll live,” Jarvis says. “Oh, the pain. Did you bring any whiskey?”

David, not missing a beat: “We left it with the lady down the street.”

Louise: “Did Mr. Gaherty live here?”

Mrs. Brown, the owner: “Yes. Even though he’s Irish, he’s a nice man.”

David: “What do you know about Horn?”

Mrs. Brown: “He has a bad reputation as a scalawag.”

Jarvis: “Oh, the pain!”

The Doyles finally get Jarvis to say that he was facing the street when he was shot in the left side, meaning the bullet had to come from Gaherty’s pistol. So the family’s conspiracy theory of a second shot was, well, shot down.

Christopher, smirking: “Are there any grassy knolls around here?”

Scene: Courthouse, Washington Street, high noon

Do you really think we’re going to reveal a spoiler?

All the witnesses are grilled by Sheriff Stewart, who could barely keep order, and the “investigators.” The highlight comes when 10-year-old Molly Stewart asks the floozy, Miss Jones, “Do you have relationships with anyone else in this town?”

The verdict? Sorry, you’ll just have to attend the final performance Aug. 30 or do a Google search on the case.

But here’s a hint: Apparently, the “Stand Your Ground” law predated Florida by more than 149 years.